What Is Faturan ?
Faturan has a very mixed history, even if half of what is written on the web is to be believed. Most concur that this type of plastic is of the Bakelite family, therefore a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde.
Depending on who you believe, Faturan was either invented by a German in Hamburg about the same time Dr. Baekeland developed Bakelite, (Dr. H. Traun), or it was a Middle Eastern mixture of amber shavings with ‘other matierals’ invented sometime between 1700 – 1900 by an Egyptian.
It is also said that the very first sight of Bakelite was when it was imported into Turkey (and most likely Istanbul or Constantinople as it was previously called), in the form of furniture handles and knobs. Turks are exceedingly bright in my experience and it is not long after these first imports that ‘Faturan’ started to appear on the open market in the form of prayer beads, or ‘komboloi’.
The Turks are given the credit for discovering the carving possibilities of this new material. In particular, they noticed that Faturan could be made to imitate natural amber. They made their own versions of this product some mixing it with dyes, amber powder and even incense. It is said that each master of the mixture had their own unique and secret recipe.
It seems that Faturan is often mistaken for amber. The demand for prayer beads (locally called komboloi or tesbah), has always been high and it is unknown how many people purchased these beads thinking they were amber when in fact they were Faturan. They are now highly sought after and collected worldwide as they are no longer produced in this material.
Other sources on the web claim that Faturan was invented by an Egyptian named Faturan and therefore the product he invented was named after him. The details are sketchy, and one source says “Faturan is a mixture of natural amber, incense and resins. The secret to turn this mix into a solid is highly guarded.”
Yet another source claims that this type of plastic was sheer invention since it was not mentioned in any early books on the subject of beads. Every source seems to agree that Faturan was not made after 1940 and many think it only appeared after the arrival of Bakelite.
My own independent research would indicate that there are people out there who do believe this product exists and even collect it. Just to confuse the issue even further, Faturan does not test ‘positive’ for Bakelite or amber with all tests, including the terrible hot pin test. One website goes so far as to say that intact prayer beads are considered museum items. I am using a huge antique Ottoman komboloi which I believe is Faturan for illustrations in this article.